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March 25, 2011

Huntington Prep has plans in place to succeed

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Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

Rob Fulford knows what his Huntington (W.Va.) Prep basketball program is.

It is nationally ranked, loaded with talent and on the rise.

He also knows what his second-year program is not.

It's not Henderson (Nev.) Findlay Prep or Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill.

But he is working on that.

"I make it no secret that we want to get to the point those schools are," he said. "We mirrored our program to run like Findlay Prep and [Bradenton (Fla.)] IMG Academy. We work within our state association, but we want to get our program to be in the same place nationally as Oak Hill."

Some may argue it already is.

Huntington is ranked No. 23 in the RivalsHigh 100 and has gone toe-to-toe with many other ranked programs, defeating Oak Ridge (N.C.) Oak Ridge Military Academy, Philadelphia (Pa.) Neumann & Goretti and Montverde (Fla.) Montverde Academy. It gained valuable experience in its losses to other nationally-ranked opponents, Chester (Pa.) High and Findlay Prep.

The school is not eligible to compete in the West Virginia basketball playoffs but is still waiting to find out if it will be invited to the National High School Invitational to be played March 31 - April 2.

But those results are not the goal. They are simply part of the climb.

"I am going to play anyone I can. Anywhere I can," he said. "It is tough to get people to come to Huntington, and I understand that, so we have to be flexible about our travel."

He also has to be flexible in the players he can bring into his program.

"We can not take academic casualties," he said. "Our school is not a diploma factory. When we start talking to kids, I am very upfront with every kid and let them know if they think they are going to come here to play basketball and get their standardized test scores up, this is not the place for them.

"Our team carries a 2.95 GPA. Acdemics are something we take seriously."

The partner school, Huntington (W.Va.) St. Joseph, is a Catholic high school with a long standing tradition of academics.

Those standards, coupled with a supporting leader, made it a perfect fit according to Fulford.

"We need to have both," he said. "Principal (Bill) Archer understands how important sports are and he supports us. He also enforces academics. It is perfect."

Archer understanding sports may be an understatement. In 2007, Archer was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and awarded a Lifetime Service to Wrestling accommodation.

"He knows how important athletics are to kids and to a student body," Fulford said.

The Huntington Prep basketball team makes up a very diverse section of the student body. The 2010-11 roster was made up of players from all over the globe.

Charles Lee came to Huntington from Milwaukee, Wisc. Maurice Aniefiok from Nigeria. Ibrahima Djimde from Mali. And Jermiah Davis hailed from Muncie, Ind.

That was just the senior class.

The junior class is just as diverse with players from as close as Beckley, W.Va., and as far as Nigeria. The lone sophomore, Gabriel Williams, also came from Nigeria. And the only freshman, Francis Kiapway, is an import from Canada.

It is a mish mash of players, certainly, but that is also part of the building process.

"We can not recruit the same players as Findlay can," Fulford said. "We can't compete with Las Vegas. Huntington is not Vegas. That doesn't mean we aren't recruiting high-level players because we are getting high-major kids.

"We have to get good kids, with good grades and a lot of times they are from good families. That seems to be our type and it is working for us."

Two of the type players that Fulford is very high on are in his junior class.

"I think we have two special players in Stefan Jankovic and Negus Webster-Chan," he said. "Stefan has taken our challenge to get tougher. There are parts of his game that make it tough to guard, he can play the three, four or five. But he had to get tough."

Rivals.com analyst Eric Bossi agreed.

After seeing Jankovic in a National Prep Showcase, Bossi said that he thinks Jankovic is likely to end up as a four-star prospect, and liked his game.

"He combined the perimeter skill of a small forward with the size of a power forward," Bossi said. "His skill level makes it tough for big men to guard him because he can dribble by them and his size is too much for small forwards."

Webster-Chan, a Louisville commit, received a very high compliment from Fulford, who called his returning point guard a "more athletic Kyle Anderson," referring to the junior star of No. 1 Jersey City (N.J.) St. Anthony.

And while the compliments can be easy to come by, criticism is a major part of the regime.

"We challenge our kids to get better," Fulford said. "Me and all of my assistants want to get the most out of our players and sometimes that involves straight talk and tough love."

Fulford is able to recall one such situation involving 7-foot-4 player Sim Bhullar.

Bhullar, who has offers from Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Washington State and West Virginia, was not living up to the expectations of the staff.

"We had to sit him down," Fulford said. "He was out of shape and wasn't focused at practice and it was a moment where I just said, 'Sim, what are you going to do if you don't get to the NBA? If you don't take basketball seriously what will you do? How many 7-foot-4 people do you see not playing basketball?'"

Fulford said the moment of harsh criticism worked.

"You could see it in him," he said. "He is buying in and working harder. He has a lot of talent and raw ability. He is only limited by him. I am not easy on the kids."

Fulford thinks that approach is the way to lead young men.

"We try to fill our kids' day just like they will be when they get to college," he added. "There is not much time for social life or getting into trouble. Hoops, homework, time management."

For the program to get to the highest point, Fulford believes in acting like you are already there.

"There are programs that will go for the quick fix, for win at all cost," he said. "We want to do it right. We want to win a high school basketball national championship. But we want to have staying power."

MORE: Huntington Prep Express homepage | Media Partner: The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington

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